I fell for it. Walking on Amsterdam, I had just passed an older man with a cane when he called out behind me “You dropped something”. I turned to look even as I felt that everything was yes still in my pocket. He looked at me to catch my attention again “You dropped my heart”. Oh, a flirt. Oh dear. He did not crack a smile. I wanted to keep walking; he wanted to keep talking. I tried to do both as I naturally speeded ahead. “Where are you from?” He asked. “Italy?” I answered, shaking my head and gesturing at the ground with my pointing hands, “No, here”. I know that with my dark curls and light skin I look exotic, at least Italian or Mediterranean, which is close enough. “Where is your family from?” “From Poland and Bulgaria”. I did not add that I am Jewish, which could have explained all. A quizzical look came over his face. “Is that near Africa?” He was making a joke, he said “I am just kidding” but he may never have heard of Bulgaria. I could have told him that I am often mistaken for Italian or Hispanic or Greek, but instead I thought about how much more ethnically diverse and evidently so my neighborhood used to be. I wondered about his background and history in the neighborhood, but did not ask. I smiled as he walked into a drugstore and I walked on.
He may have made my day more than I did his. I am at an age where being noticed on the street often amuses rather than outrages me. Yet a few days before I had found myself walking with purpose (and hence speed) in midtown in the evening, practicing tunnel vision. Suddenly I heard voices behind me, clearly raised loud enough to penetrate my defenses. Yeah she has those wide hips and she just keeps walking. Nothing is going to stop her. She must be a native New Yorker. Look at her. They went on in this vein for a while, making sure that I could hear; they must have been closer than I like to realize. They were certainly taunting and they sounded like they might be drunk. They thought that their behavior was acceptable. Or, they were just not thinking at all. It was an avenue crowded with tourists so I felt relatively safe, but at a different time of day I would not have. I thought about doing so but elected not to turn around to glare at them or tell them off – because getting my attention and/or getting a rise out me was exactly what they wanted and I did not want to satisfy them by falling for their ploy. I continued on, walking as fast as I could, but it took a while to put distance between us because the sidewalks were so crowded. They were probably behind me and invading my air space for no more than two or three blocks, but it felt like an eternity and the agitation stayed with me for longer, exacerbated by a string of minor snafus which may have been set off by my agitation. A bit later on I described the incident to a friend over dinner and I was able to relax after that. My friend was sympathetic but she noted that people persist in such behavior because no one talks back to them. I agreed but said I did not want to pick a fight at that moment. I am not fully sure that I made the right choice; I certainly would have alleviated my aggravation if I had said something or at least given them a nasty look. Choosing one’s battles and knowing when to speak up for oneself – these moments sometimes come at surprising times and in unexpected ways. They are especially charged when gender dynamics and/or feelings of safety in public spaces are involved.
So, in the wake of that episode, having the older man look at me through his large glasses and work to engage me felt almost sweet. His sense of allowance felt different, even though it may not have been. I may have felt differently if he had continued on the path with me for a bit longer and there had not been as natural an ending to the exchange. I started thinking more about what I might be projecting or emanating as I walked down the street. This is difficult, because I do not want to go too far in the direction of seeing myself as overly responsible for the incidents described. At the same time I am receiving feedback that I can still consider even as I filter it given the presenters. What do strangers see when they see me?
Comparing and contrasting these two incidents, considering their contexts and where they fit in the chronology of my life, reminds me of how much we bring to even the smallest meeting or interaction. In New York City so many of these moments happen or have the potential to happen every day it is dizzying and hence no wonder that natives walk fast and avoid eye contact. Yet sometimes our chance exchanges, such as striking up a conversation with a stranger, prove uplifting or even life-changing. I hope that I remain open enough for those possibilities.
©2011 Leah Strigler